Interview: Murray Bartlett reflects on the lasting love of Frank and Bill in ‘The Last of Us,’ queer stories, and the legacy of ‘Looking’
“I think this is actually one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read”
HBO Sunday nights are the glue that holds us all together. No matter what series comes on, you can always immediately pull up Twitter and find a conversation being had about whatever series is in the 9-10 pm ET slot. Whether it’s House of the Dragon or even going back as far as The Sopranos, HBO has cemented themselves as the channel to be tuned into at 9 pm ET on a Sunday night. The Last of Us was no different, as weekly conversations ensued over the performances, character decisions and motivations, and debates over life and morality. There was no other episode that garnered attention like episode 3, titled “Long Long Time,” a 75-minute breakout that explores the lives of Bill, a beloved character from the game, and Frank, the man he fell in love with. Played expertly by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett, respectively, the men spend almost two decades together before ending their lives in each other’s arms.
Emmy Award winner Murray Bartlett (The White Lotus, Looking) moved from Sydney to Perth, Australia with his family when he was four and moved later to attend John Curtin College of the Arts in Fremantle. He then was accepted into the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. Bartlett found jobs in Australia, but once he moved to the United States he eventually got a guest spot on Sex and the City. He starred in CBS’ Guiding Light for two and a half years, but started more mainstream recognition when he joined HBO’s Looking (2014-2015). 2021 brought the first season of The White Lotus, for which he received critical and audience praise for his Emmy Award and Critics’ Choice Award-winning performance as the titular resort’s exhausted manager. And then, in January, he was brought back briefly for HBO Sunday nights with The Last of Us as audiences experienced a heartrending love story that reminded them that “On the Nature of Daylight” will bring anyone to their knees.
I sat down with Bartlett to discuss his role in the series, his relationship with performing in queer art, the resurgence of Looking, and his thoughts on the progression of these types of stories.
Tyler Doster: What was your original reaction to reading the script [for episode 3 of The Last of Us]? And was there anything that stood out to you immediately when reading it?
Murray Bartlett: Yeah, I just thought it was incredibly beautiful. I don’t think I had the full script at first. I had it fairly early on, but I got the scenes for the audition, and there were three scenes that I think were kind of beginning, middle, and towards the end of this just beautifully written relationship and I could tell that… you could just tell that. They were so moving, those scenes. Well, there was sort of a spark in the first scene, and then just this beautiful development already only in these three scenes that I had.
And then the last scene was sort of towards the end of the episode. Yeah, it blew my mind really and I had a really strong emotional response from the very beginning. So it was very, very powerful. So I knew it was something incredibly special and I wanted to get that job. From the moment I read it, I felt a real kind of connection to it, and I wanted to be the one to just play this beautiful, vulnerable, complex love story.
TD: Did you feel any freedom in playing a character in this adaptation that didn’t get as much time in the game?
MB: Yeah, it is interesting because our story or our characters were… well, my character isn’t in the game much at all and never really appeared. And then they took obviously a lot of license with these characters as a conscious choice to create a different sort of flavor for the show in terms of just blowing out this… not purely, but almost purely human story and a kind of love story in the midst of this sort of chaos of the world that we’re in, in the show.
So there was freedom in that we didn’t have to try and stick too closely, particularly for me, a little less for Nick, because Bill has more of a presence in the game. But we could imagine who these characters were and really flesh out the story in the way that was written but it was beautifully written in that way. So we had beautifully drawn characters in the episode that was written, even though they didn’t have, or my character particularly, didn’t have a strong presence in the game.
TD: Was there anything that you and Nick filmed together that didn’t end up making it to the final cut?
MB: I can’t remember now. It’s weird with these shows because it was a long shooting period and we were right towards the beginning. So it’s a couple of years ago now. I thought they did such a beautiful job with the final cut of the episode. And it’s long, I can’t remember how many minutes it is, but it’s a long episode of television but I think there were some pieces that didn’t make it in weirdly. I think the original cut was two hours or something. Oh, I remember Craig Mazin saying there was nothing really that was actually cut. It was more sort of… and our director, Peter [Hoar] leaves a lot of space at the beginning and at the end of scenes.
So there was a lot of air for the scenes to breathe and just to see what happens if people come up with things or whatever. So I think the trimming that came was really just sort of those spaces that didn’t feel necessary but I think everybody in every department loved this episode dearly, including the editors and the creators. So when it came to cutting it down, they really didn’t want to cut things out, which is a beautiful thing, a beautiful sort of position to be in, I guess. So, yeah, not much was left out as far as I remember.
TD: This, to me, is a standout episode in television and stride in representation for queer men, as it might not seem to be the happiest ending, but it is a peaceful one that these kinds of characters are not always afforded. And I just wanted to know how it felt for you to be involved in such an episode and how it feels to have the reaction of the community for this.
MB: Yeah, I knew from the first scenes that I had and then the script, I knew that it was something very special. And when you feel that, you want to be part of it, you want to be one of the people who gets to tell that story because we had the sense that it could have the effect that it ended up having, which was still a wonderful surprise. You never know whether things are going to resonate when you put them out in the world. And I’m always very aware of the old trope of the tragic queer character that has a tragic ending. I just didn’t feel like this is that.
I think one of the things that I love about it is that it’s one of the most beautiful love stories that I’ve ever read and it happens to be queer, that doesn’t happen very often I don’t think. And one of the most beautiful things I think for me is seeing that it resonated with a queer audience, a non-queer audience, with people who don’t necessarily feel themselves responding to queer stories. I think it’s wonderful that this is a queer sort of facet of this show that is a show that’s largely sort of watched by a gaming audience, which is not necessarily a super queer audience, it’s a show that’s potentially for everybody.
I think when you have the chance to tell a queer story, particularly a beautifully written queer story like this in a form that is going out to everybody, that’s such a wonderful thing. I feel like that’s the goal, we should be telling stories to everybody about the sort of fullness of the community that we are including queer characters. And I feel like that this is the kind of love story that I’ve always wanted to tell, and the fact that it’s a queer love story is extra special on a personal level for me.
TD: Speaking of this relationship, I think what makes it work so well is the intimacy between you and Nick. And I was wondering what the conversations were like between the two of you. Also, what the conversations you had with [director] Peter Hoar, but really, specifically between you and Nick and creating this intimacy, this relationship together.
MB: There wasn’t a lot of conversations, what we talked about initially was how much we loved this episode and we loved the script. I think we had a sense… we had a really sort of easy, lovely connection with each other as people… I’d heard wonderful things about Nick. We have friends in common, and we’d both heard good reports from mutual friends and others about each other so we had a really very easy instant connection. And I think in that connection, for me anyway, I felt from Nick, we know what we got to do here. We just have to be vulnerable and open and dive in and trust each other. There was not a lot of talk about it, and likewise from Peter Hoar, there was a sort of reverence to this script because it was so beautiful and a reverence to this story.
So he gave us space and there was a sort of hushed quality on set and to the way that he directed us and the way that we interacted; we all were handling it with care, and it very felt like a very delicate thing. So sometimes if you talk too much, that can sort of break it apart a little bit, not necessarily, sometimes it’s wonderful to talk, but in this situation, it seemed like once we got started, we were like, “okay, it feels like we’re all in a zone here and we’re just going to give each other the space to explore this.” We had this amazing cinematographer (Eben Bolter) who after we shot, we were doing a Q&A recently, and he was talking about how he was incredibly mindful of not bringing the cameras too close and the light’s too close and not having things in our eye line.
Everybody was just very mindful of giving space to this beautiful script and this story and not imposing too much or pushing too much, just sort of letting it be, because it did feel like a very delicate story to tell. There’s some real sort of sensitive, vulnerable moments in the scenes, some of the scenes that we have. So, yeah, it was one of those beautiful things where we had this… Nick and I had a great connection. Peter was wonderful to be around on set, just very sort of gentle and hands off when he needed to be, and then would swoop in and kind of guide us if there needed to be some sort of direction or whatever. So it was surprisingly very little talk and more just let’s dive in and try and do justice to this beautiful story.
TD: I’d like to ask you about something that I found very real about the episode, which is Frank clocks Bill multiple times within an hour of meeting him before they finally kiss, including saying that he knows “there’s not a girl.” So I just wanted to ask you what you thought of that, because that is a very real thing in the world, specifically queer men having to find themselves in situations where they have to see if another man is interested in him or not.
MB: Yeah! It’s very interesting for Frank, particularly in the beginning of this episode because yes, there’s that, but before that, there’s like, “is this guy going to kill me and can I trust this guy?” Also, “I’m about to die of starvation. Can I kind of manipulate this guy, who I think I feel something and sense something with, can I manipulate him to feed me, give me water?” Maybe “I could live here. This place looks cool.” There’s so many things going on. And so I think initially there is definitely this kind of scoping out each other and I think Frank senses an energy, but it’s a lot going on in terms of just survival instinct. But also Frank, he’s good at charming people and good at manipulating with his charm. And so, partly, there’s a chemistry element to it but a lot of it also in the beginning is just that, let me in and give me a feed.
And then he’s pretty quickly blown away by this incredible meal and this sort of incredibly meticulously curated environment that he’s taken into. So there’s a lot of signs, but there is that sort of… he knows that he probably has to tread very carefully with this guy because he’s got a hard shell and it’s hard to know what’s beyond that, even though he’s picking up on these potential signs. It’s a wonderful thing to play as an actor because you’ve got to tread carefully and you’ve got to try different tactics. And you’re trying to not spring the trap, but just sort of get in there and get the cheese before the trap goes off. So it is kind of a lovely kind of cat and mouse game that we get to play, particularly in the beginning part of the episode.
TD: And it moves, of course, right over to the piano. And the title is based on that Linda Ronstadt song, “Long, Long Time” about growing old together. Frank, at a certain point in the episode tells Bill that he likes growing old with him, and in a community and a world that is sometimes regressive when it comes to age politics, how did it feel being able to play a couple of men that are actually excited to grow old with one another?
MB: Well, I think it’s in a world like that, and maybe a world like ours too, in many ways, it’s a sort of privilege to grow old. You’re surrounded by danger and kind of chaos. And so the fact that they could grow old together, there’s a different sense of value on what’s important. That scene where they have the strawberries together, you don’t get strawberries. So if you don’t get strawberries and then you have a strawberry, you really appreciate that strawberry, man. It’s like heaven. So I think it’s the same with… it’s one of the beautiful things about the story is that it’s sort of suspended from all the kind of judgements that we have as people and the kind of preconceptions we have of what life should be or relationships should be or whatever, because these two people have been lucky enough in a chaotic sort of post-apocalyptic world to find each other, to find love, to find a life together when it just doesn’t seem possible so it’s a totally different perspective on what’s important.
That’s a beautiful thing to play. It’s a beautiful thing, as a human, to be aware of, like wow, yeah. What if we actually lived like those guys? Not always, obviously they fought and they had days when they were pissed or whatever, but that there was a perspective of how lucky are we to have found each other and to have a life together and to be able to grow all together, what if we could all live that way? That’s pretty profound. So it was beautiful to live that way for a while through this character.
TD: I’m not sure if you know this, but the internet, specifically Twitter, about every four to six months likes to bring up Looking and in regards to its legacy, people debate its merits and the messiness of everybody on the show. And I wanted to ask you, because obviously it’s been almost a decade and it’s happening again right now. If you got on Twitter, you would probably see it, people bringing it up. I wanted to ask you how you felt about it and where [the series] stands in terms of queer art and representation as the way it looks at the inner lives of these men?
MB: Yeah, working on Looking was one of the best experiences that I had. It was definitely one of the best experiences I had at the time. We all loved working on that show so much and we had really great intentions for that show, and we wanted it to be everything for everybody. Well, we knew that it couldn’t be, but we wanted it to be satisfying. And it was sort of a love letter to the queer community, in a way. We had amazing people, Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh at the helm, and Andrew Haigh, who’d not long before made that beautiful film, Weekend, which we all were just sort of so in love with. And, so, we really wanted to make something that felt authentic and specific and real. And so that’s what we set out to do, and that’s what we really pour our hearts into that show.
And it was sort of surprising and upsetting at times some of the divisive responses to that show. However, I will say there were responses from a lot of people within the US who really, it resonated for them, or it made them feel less alone, or they could identify with it or whatever, which was wonderful. And I have to say, even more so, many responses from people in parts of the world that can’t live freely as queer people who just… it was a very sort of important show for a lot of people living in those parts of the world, so that was very gratifying for us. I think the thing is: for any community that’s underrepresented in film and tv, it can never be everything for everybody, even though you want it to be. And so there’s a lot of pressure on anything that comes out from a sort of marginalized community.
So it’s bound to get a sort of mixed response. That aside, I feel like every piece of queer sort of TV and film, hopefully, and I think this is true of Looking – I believe it is – it pushes things forward. It allows for the next show to come out. It opens people’s minds a little more, hopefully. It lays the groundwork for what comes next. That was definitely something that we set out to do. There’s more now, but there were fewer shows that were devoted to queer characters at the time and so I think it plays an important part. What part it plays is subjective. I hope that it’s something great. I know for some people, it was a very important show for them.
For us, it was, we were really trying to put something great out into the world, and some people didn’t feel that it was that, some people did, so we can’t control that. But we just gotta keep telling the stories and keep kind of nudging people’s sort of awareness, I think about queer stories and just allowing people to connect to the fact that we’re all basically the same, and there’s nothing really dividing us except ourselves. I think Looking played a part in that. I like to think that it did. That was certainly our intention.
TD: Speaking of Looking… on HBO specifically, we’ve seen you from smaller to larger roles in Sex and the City, Looking, The White Lotus, and now The Last of Us. I was wondering how it feels to be HBO’s poster child for queer representation?
MB: (laughs) Well, they never gave me that crown or that sash or that title. I’ve been fortunate and feel very lucky to have been the one to be able to tell these stories. You always want to do things as an actor that feels in some way meaningful and I have a personal investment in these stories. I want to play a wide range of characters, but I feel like I’ve played a wide range of queer characters and other characters, but on HBO, mostly queer characters which I feel incredibly proud of. If that’s the title they’re giving me, I’ll take it proudly.
The first season of The Last of Us is currently available to stream on HBO Max. Murray Bartlett is Emmy-eligible in Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for the episode “Long, Long Time.”